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Environmentalists See Nevada Supreme Court Ruling Bringing State’s Water Management ‘Into the 21st Century’

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The Nevada Supreme Court unanimously ruled last week that the state can restrict new groundwater pumping if it will impact other users and wildlife, a decision that strikes a blow to the plan of a developer that at one time hoped to build a new city of 250,000 people in the Mojave Desert and could shift how groundwater is managed in the driest U.S. state.

The court’s ruling paves the way for Nevada’s water regulators to manage groundwater depletion throughout the state, an issue of increasing importance as flows from the Colorado River and the levels of many of the region’s aquifers decline. State regulators can now view surface water and groundwater as a single source—something that has not historically been done in the state or elsewhere in the Southwest. They can also make changes to how the boundaries of groundwater basins are drawn up and divided as new studies reveal how much water they actually have and how they are interconnected with other sources of water. 

Thursday’s decision is the latest in what has been a decades-long dispute between proponents of a real estate development, Coyote Springs, that has proposed building more than 150,000 homes 50 miles outside of Las Vegas and currently consists of one golf course, and environmentalists and the state’s various water agencies that argued the construction would impact other water users and wildlife throughout the region. 

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“Our descendants in the environmental movement will be using this precedent to fight for wildlife in Nevada 50 years from now,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s extremely consequential.” 

Kent R. Robison, who represented Coyote Springs Investment LLC in the case, said the development “is frozen in time” because of the court’s decision, as it will take years to get clarity on how it could move forward. Emilia Cargill, chief operating officer for Coyote Springs Investment, told Inside Climate News the developers do not know what they will do next, and their next steps “will take a little bit of consideration.” 

Throughout its history, the development has been controversial. The area where it would be built was originally public land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, which was sold off to private developers as part of a series of land deals Congress passed in the 1980s. But to build, developers need water. In 2001, the Coyote Springs developers sought around 30,000 acre feet of it a year from one of the interconnected basins in the region, according to an order from the state engineer.

Opposition to more groundwater pumping in the area began to form shortly after, with groups expressing concern over how Coyote Springs could impact other senior water rights holders and the environment after the state engineer ordered testing to be done to examine the development’s potential impacts on the aquifer. 

And the dispute is not over, as the state’s Supreme Court remanded the case back to district court, where parties will argue over the science used by the state engineer in making the decision. If the courts side with the state again, it means a total of only about 8,000 acre-feet could be pumped out of the groundwater system, far less water than what is currently permitted, and likely killing any major plans of development for the area.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court ruling sets the precedent that the state can take action in regions facing drought and ecological challenges relating to water if the science backs up the decision, something environmentalists and water providers say is a major win for other issues and brings “Nevada water management into the 21st century,” Donnelly said. 

The Amargosa Desert is one place that could be impacted by the decision. It’s home to the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a wetland habitat in Nevada near the California border that supports a dozen endangered and threatened species and is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet.

Local communities and environmentalists have been protesting a proposed lithium mine near the refuge, which would bore holes into a series of interconnected groundwater basins that support the refuge and the species it is home to. Last summer, a public campaign against the project and a lawsuit over the Bureau of Land Management’s decision to allow the drilling resulted in the federal agency rescinding the mining company’s permit to drill. In December 2023, the company submitted a new plan of operations for the site, leading the groups to call on the federal government to ban new mining claims in the area. 

Their argument has rested on water. The Amargosa River runs underground for the length of the refuge but surfaces in some areas, providing vital habitat for endemic species, like the Devils Hole pupfish, and is fed by the aquifers beneath it. Pumping groundwater for mining could reduce the amount of water in those streams.

“There’s more water coming out of the ground in the Amargosa than there are water resources, and it’s having a negative impact on wildlife,” Donnelly said. “There are new demands being put on water, potentially by solar and lithium, and so [the court’s decision] can be extremely consequential in the Amargosa.” It’s a precedent Donnelly and others said they plan to use to oppose any proposed mines or water-intensive development proposals.

Studies have already shown that just drilling exploratory boreholes to find lithium deposits could alter hydrological flows in such a way that could be harmful to downstream springs and endangered species, said Mason Voehl, the executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, an environmental group that has helped lead the push to protect the refuge.

The conservancy is now conducting a basin-wide study using tools from the state engineer’s office to better evaluate how further groundwater pumping in the area could impact the region, Voehl said. The court’s decision to uphold the state engineer’s Order 1309, which created the Lower White River Flow System as a single hydrographic basin, and declared no more than 8,000 acre feet of water could be pumped out of the “superbasin, gives further weight to the study they are conducting, he said. 

“All of that I think culminates in a very compelling path towards us being able to argue for these land use and land designation changes that have to happen,” he said. 

A Fight for an Endangered Fish

Like many environmental battles in Nevada, Donnelly said, the fight began with an endangered species—the Moapa dace, a fish species endemic to the Muddy River and its springs.

Back in the 1960s, the state mapped 256 aquifers, each representing a separate water supply. But they were drawn based on topography, meaning essentially between each mountain range was a new basin, Donnelly said. As the years passed, better science indicated there were far fewer basins than originally drawn up, and many of what the state had thought were separate, distinct basins were actually connected. 

That issue arose in the early 2000s as the development of Coyote Springs began to seek water rights. Applicants across six of the hydrographic basins in the region sought over 300,000 acre feet of water, roughly the same amount of water the entire state of Nevada gets each year from the Colorado River, with Coyote Springs seeking just under 30,000 acre feet.

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The state engineer, Nevada’s top water official, found that no new water rights could be issued until significant testing was done to determine the impact further pumping could have on other senior water rights holders and the environment. 

A two-year test of the six basins years later found groundwater pumping caused sharp declines in aquifer levels and the flows of nearby streams vital to the Muddy River. In response, the state engineer issued Order 1309 to create the Lower White River Flow System, and limit the amount of water that could be pumped out of the superbasin, to prevent senior water right holders and the environment, including the endangered Moapa dace, from receiving less water than they have been allocated. 

The developer behind Coyote Springs then sued, arguing the state’s decision was an “unconstitutional taking” of its existing water rights, which would be affected by the cap in the superbasin.

In the court’s ruling, State Supreme Court Justice Patricia Lee wrote that the lower court’s decision, which ruled against the state engineer, was improper, and the state engineer had the authority to create the superbasin. The court also found the plaintiff’s rights had not been violated since they received notice of the state’s plan and had the opportunity to comment on it. 

The decision reaffirms the doctrine of “prior appropriation” in Nevada, meaning that the rights of those who first use the water take priority. Junior water rights holders cannot impact the supply guaranteed to older rights holders. In the case of the Muddy River, which is in part fed by the local aquifers, that water winds up downstream to other users, including Las Vegas, which holds senior water rights. 

“This is a positive step toward further protecting Nevada’s water resources, protecting water rights and water supplies in the Muddy River, as well as the habitat for the endangered Moapa dace that is found only in the headwaters of the Muddy River,” said Bronson Mack, a spokesperson for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies around 2.3 million residents in Southern Nevada and the Las Vegas metropolitan area. 

If the district court finds the science backs up the state engineer’s decision, the 31,000 acre feet from the basin once approved for various users in the basin will need to be cut to just 8,000 acre feet, which will require a reapportioning of water supplies that will likely take time and prove challenging to equitably implement. 

However, no matter how the court rules in the case of Coyote Springs, the Nevada Supreme Court’s decision to manage groundwater depletion throughout the state and recognize how aquifers and surface water are connected will carry weight in water and environmental disputes for years to come. 

“The state engineer has the tools and the tools have been approved, so in other cases where there are water rights users—real estate, mining, agriculture—who want to use water that will impact senior water rights holders or the environment, even if it’s in a remote location, the state engineer’s ability to manage that conflict is enshrined,” Donnelly said. “I think there’s going to be far more scrutiny and far more hurdles put in place for entities looking to exploit groundwater in places it’s just not sustainable.”

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